Macy’s department store in downtown San Francisco has observed some form of Black History Month event each year for more than ten years, and for the last four years they’ve hosted a star-studded panel moderated by legendary Bay Area radio personality Renel Brooks-Moon. This year’s panel was a Feb. 22 conversation at which Renel was joined by star of the HBO series Insecure Jay Ellis, Grammy nominee BJ the Chicago Kid, Oakland MC RyanNicole, and an audience of nearly 300 to reflect on Black History Month and its meaning in their lives.
Renel Brooks-Moon, currently with KBLX and set to reprise her role with the San Francisco Giants as the only female public address announcer in Major League Baseball, notes that Black History Month is of particular importance in 2017.
“Our current administration, the man sitting in the big chair, doesn’t seem to know who Frederick Douglass is or that we have a Congressional Black Caucus,” she tells SF Weekly. “So we even need to educate the White House.”
Brooks-Moon was especially inspired by the recent success and Best Picture nomination for the historical drama Hidden Figures. “Many of us are a little perturbed that we weren’t taught that story, that we didn’t know that story of these three incredible women,” she says.
Jay Ellis also brought up Hidden Figures during the panel discussion, and what the film means to a global audience. “Y’all know Hidden Figures is the No. 1 movie in Australia right now?,” Ellis said. “I’ve been to Australia before, and let me tell you something. I was the only [black] one. The only one.”
“For so long we’ve been told that our movies don’t travel, our music doesn’t travel, that it’s only for us,” Ellis continued. “You realize that people around the world want to see what we do. They are inspired by what we do. They love our music, they love our movies, they love our culture.”
BJ the Chicago Kid is a prominent ambassador of that culture, with three Grammy nominations for his 2016 album “In My Mind” and recently seen singing the National Anthem at President Obama’s farewell address.
“Beyonce brought him in and I took him out,” he jokes to SF Weekly, referring to Beyonce performing the anthem at Obama’s 2009 inauguration.
“Black History Month is a limitation of black history,” BJ says. “I don’t understand why black people have to be condemned to 30 days. Black history is far bigger than a month.”
But the observance of Black History Month remains powerful to these performers, particularly in emphasizing the achievements of black culture and eliminating common stereotypes.
“I used to say, man, I just want a job. I just want to act,” Ellis explained to the crowd. “The more I got into it, the fewer and fewer faces like mine I saw, and the roles I was often asked to read — what I was put here to do, in some ways, was to change the narrative of young black men in this country. That’s why I act, that’s why I tell stories, that’s why I do events like this.”
Whether it’s events like this or the accomplishments of prominent African-Americans, there is still enduring appeal of the culture celebrated in Black History Month.
“You go to any soul food restaurant in the world, I guarantee you’ll see more than black faces,” the Chicago Kid said during the panel. “There’s an attraction to us. And there’s something really valuable in that.”
The panel concluded with a live performance by MC and actress RyanNicole that can be seen in the video below.